Shocking footage that depicts the alleged police abuse of prisoners under Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili suggests that, one year ahead of its parliamentary vote, Georgia could again be in store for a no-holds-barred election season of scandalous videos. The footage went public on the same day as poll results that ranked Saakashvili’s opposition United National Movement ahead of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
“This is probably just a trailer; the full movie will come later,” drily remarked Tbilisi State University political scientist Kornely Kakachaia to EurasiaNet.org.
The video, which surfaced on a website in Ukraine, where Saakashvili now works as a regional governor, depicts supposed policemen allegedly torturing and sexually assaulting a man to force a confession. The case reportedly dates from 2011, when the UNM was in office.
Similar footage preceded, and, to a certain extent, caused the party’s fall from power in 2012, and helped the Georgian Dream sweep to victory.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who said that the video was found during his own 2012-2013 tenure as interior minister, claims that the scenes “demonstrated once again” that Saakashvili’s administration “was a sadistic regime.” Prosecutors are investigating the alleged abuse, while the interior ministry says it’s looking into how the footage made it online.
A senior member of the Georgian Dream, Irakli Sesiashvili, stressed in an interview with the weekly Kviris Palitra that releasing such footage was not in the government’s interests. Aside from the interior ministry, he claimed, “others also had material" documenting alleged police abuses.
In the Georgian Dream’s telling, the Saakashvili-era police maintained video archives of their brutal tactics toward prisoners. Some of those recordings allegedly have been destroyed, but others have been kept for use in investigations against suspects. The government has arranged private screenings for diplomats, media and civil-society representatives.
This time around, though, several obscure groups, described by the UNM as the Georgian Dream’s unofficial attack teams, showed the footage on outdoor screens in the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, and the western city of Zugdidi, drawing condemnation from rights organizations.
“The public showing of the torture footage is causing more suffering to the victims of the torture and… is a violation of their rights,” reads a statement from eight leading NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and the local chapter of Transparency International.*
The participation of Zugdidi government officials in these outdoor screenings and their comments “add to the suspicions that these videos are used as political weapons,” the statement noted.
In locations throughout western Georgia after the screenings, various individuals have gotten intro brawls with UNM activists, attacked the party’s offices or, in one reported case in the region of Guria, a Georgian-Dream stronghold, allegedly tried to seal a UNM office-door shut.
The rights organizations noted that inhumane treatment of inmates was a systematic problem under the UNM, but also faulted the Georgian Dream for failing to investigate past suspected crimes fully.
For the UNM, however, little doubt exists that the Georgian Dream dropped the video-bomb to overshadow the news of the coalition’s sagging public support.
In a poll for the National Democratic Institute, released on October 17, only 14 percent of more than 4,400 respondents said that they’d vote for the Georgian Dream if the parliamentary elections were held tomorrow — compared with 15 percent for the UNM.
Leading the poll results, though, were “Don’t know” and “No party,” together the choice of 41 percent of respondents.
Nevertheless, the UNM blew all the trumpets about its tiny lead. Its support has stayed stable, while the Georgian Dream saw its ratings sag by about 10 percentage points since April.
In comments to reporters, Prime Minister Gharibashvili claimed that the poll’s field-workers “are directly connected to the National Movement,” and dismissed the findings. (The Caucasus Research Resource Centers, which conducted the poll, has not posted a response.) The elections, he observed, are “the most important” poll.
Kakachia and many others believe, though, that the lack of progress on what matters most for Georgians — jobs and the economy — explains the public’s indifference toward political parties.
For now, no sign that this latest video will reverse that.
--Caucasus news editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.